Broken or degraded solar panel recycling involves complex industrial-scale operations, which, fortunately, are not the only options for safe, responsible disposal for residential operators.

These options include selling still functioning panels, re-purposing non-functioning solar modules, or simply dumping them. The last option will, of course, always be subject to the boundaries of local or national laws, something owners should be aware of before doing this themselves.

On the other hand, large commercial solar operations have dedicated recycling and disposal strategies built into their business plans. For them, the recycling of solar waste is little more than an advance formulated and well-planned contingency.

This post will look at the recycling process of PV (photovoltaic or solar) panels. We’ll also explore other attractive disposal options open to private owners of dead solar equipment. These points will be considered against the backdrop of the legislation governing the solar recycling and disposal industry.

Solar Panel Recycling — The Big Picture

Solar Panel RecyclingSolar panels have some of the longest life cycles of all electronic devices. In most cases, users can realistically expect to get 20 to 25 years of usable life out of their PV arrays. In fact, many panels will last up to 40 years before they totally degrade or fail.

If you consider that solar power solutions have only become affordable and viable options in the last couple of decades, recycling is only now becoming big news. But, unfortunately, not all global players have stayed ahead of the PV waste management game. This has led to a scramble to play catch-up as more and more installations reach an end-of-life status.

Let’s take a closer look at the solar panel recycling process.

How Are Solar Panels Recycled?

Solar panels destined for recycling fall into two main classes. Namely silicone and thin-film types. Each type requires a distinctly different recycling process.

Silicon Solar Panels

Silicon solar modules are first dismantled manually to separate the waste into metal, glass, and silicon wafer components. Next, the metal parts, almost exclusively aluminum, are melted, cleaned, and re-used to make new solar panel frames. Glass sheets are recycled conventionally and generally reused to manufacture new solar panels.

The silicon PV cell waste is subjected to a thermal de-bonding process which flashes off any plastic encapsulation and separates the individual cells at high temperatures (500°C). The energy generated by the burn-off of plastic is channeled back into the production line to supplement the thermal process.

Once the cells have been separated from all the excess waste material, the silicon wafer base material is isolated by acid-etching and re-used to make new solar cells. The overall efficiency of the process is good, removing 95 % of the glass and 85 % of the silicone elements.

Thin-Film Solar Panels

Thin-Film Solar PanelsThin-film solar panels differ significantly structurally from their silicon peers and require a totally different recycling process. The first step is shredding and milling the flexible panels into approximately 4 mm or 0.16 inches, breaking up the lamination. Then, with the interior components exposed, solid and liquid elements are separated.

The liquid, or gel, components are precipitated, dewatered, and processed to remove impurities and separate the semiconductor solids.

These solids are screened to remove interlayer elements, rinsed, and re-claimed. Thin-film panel recycling typically produces 95% semiconductor and 90% glass reclamation figures.

What Are the Ecological Implications of Recycling PV Panels?

Outside of recycling, value-added recovery, and re-purposing, the main option for the disposal of PV panels remains the landfill. Obviously, this is the least desirable route from an ecological perspective.

When you consider that the average solar panel comprises 75% glass, 10% polymer composites, 8% aluminum, 5% silicon, and 1% copper, the dumping of panels in landfills is an environment time-bomb. Moreover, the additional cocktail of tin and lead found in PV modules exacerbates the situation in a big way.

So, recycling solar panels has to replace the landfill option from a green standpoint, and it cannot happen quickly enough. Sadly, at present, the financial minefield surrounding the recycling of PV modules is slowing that transition.

What Are the Financial Implications of PV Panel Recycling?

At present, recycling solar panels is seldom the golden-egg industry it may seem to be. This almost certainly plays a role in the slow pace of growth in the industry in some sectors. In many cases, outside economic incentives are injected into the industry to make it viable for players to continue driving the process forward.

If this is not pursued pro-actively, then the recycling of solar waste may become a mandatory millstone around the neck of service providers. Of course, as recycling and PV production technology evolves, this status quo will almost certainly change. For now, though, recycling is not the favorable option for disposing PV panels, at least from an economic perspective.

How Would Solar Industry Users Approach Conventional Solar Panel Recycling?

Obviously, the specifics of the solar panel recycling process will be significantly different for private individuals and large-scale commercial operators. However, the basic principles remain the same, particularly how local and national waste disposal laws impact solar panel disposal.

Residential Solar Energy Consumers

Residential Solar Energy ConsumersThe first step in recycling solar panels is locating a pick-up facility near enough for you to drop the panels off or offer a pick-up service. It’s fairly simple to locate waste disposal agents through print or online media or via your local municipal authority.

Depending on your global location, here are some international companies that offer solar recycling services. In addition, they will certainly be able to advise you on where to locate recycling agents close to you.

United States
Australia
Europe

Commercial Solar Energy Producers

Commercial Solar Energy ProducersLarge-scale solar energy producers generally have recycling policies for PV panels and strategies build into their business models. For the most part, solar farm operators have end-to-end service agreements with their installation or support partners, including comprehensive decommissioning and disposal clauses.

These agreements will thoroughly cover operational eventualities from periodic recycling or disposal of defective PV panels to complete end-of-life decommissioning. In addition, those contracts will typically place the responsibility for the recycling of all the solar panel waste on those third-party partners. They, in turn, will honor those obligations via standing contracts and agreements with industrial solar waste recyclers.

Solar Panel Recycling and the Law

In most global regions, solar panels fall within the legal boundaries of electronic waste or waste electrical components disposal policies and legislation. As a result, they generally strictly regulate solar PV recycling and disposal of solar modules for both private individuals and large-scale operators alike.

In the case of commercial solar power producers, operating within relevant legal boundaries is not an issue. Their dedicated legal and compliance departments co-operate and liaise with regulators to ensure constant legislative integrity. However, for the man on the street, keeping your nose clean when recycling panels can take some careful research.

Legal Requirements for Private Solar Panel Disposal and Recycling

There are few global guidelines for this issue, and most folks wanting to recycle solar panels would have to plumb the depths of their national or local by-laws for guidance. The upside is that it’s seldom difficult these days with a wealth of solar industry online resources freely available at most people’s fingertips.

Here are some resources that can offer guidance and probably advise you regarding recycling laws relevant to your situation. As an aside, the recycling agencies listed earlier in this article would also be a valuable source of information.

Europe

European residents would do well to check out the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive 2012/19/EU legislation, particularly the Category 4 subsection.

Australia

In Australia, legislation regulating the disposal of solar waste is still largely formulated at the state level. For example, resources like Sustainability Victoria offer a wealth of information about the state’s solar reclamation legislation and infrastructure.

The Australian Standards AS/NZS 5377 E-waste management certification system would also be a good place to seek guidance. The same applies to the Clean Energy Council’s online resources.

United States

Considering the sheer size of the US solar industry, it still lags behind other global players in bringing cohesion to their national solar waste disposal policies. That said, there are serious efforts they make recently to address the issue. We list some of the state-level legislative initiatives below.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA®) initiative mentioned earlier is the only national industry-level regulation in the US.

Global Prospects for Solar Hardware Recycling and Solar Waste Management Policies

Solar power generation is one of the fastest-growing global energy industries and shows no sign of slowing down. However, at the moment, world solar power recycling markets are still on the back of the wave as PV installations gradually approach end-of-life status.

According to Grand View Research’s September 2020 report on the global solar panel recycling market, 950 000 tons of solar panels valued at USD 161 million were recycled globally in 2020. Their forecast for the next 6 years is a real eye-opener, with the estimated volume and value set to rise to 3.2 million tons and USD334 million in 2027.

Notwithstanding the massive future potential of solar recycling, they largely relegate regulating solar waste to the back-burner. Global players have been slow to structure and gazette formal policies at national levels, leaving specific legislation to local authorities.

Fortunately, for the average homeowner, RV, or hobby enthusiast, these issues are only of academic interest. Having a couple of panels to recycle need not call for a side-trip into the dark and complex world of global solar recycling. Finding local recycling or disposal resources is easy, and there may be other, more convenient alternatives to recycling dead solar panels.

Alternatives to Conventional Solar Panel Recycling

There are several alternatives to conventional recycling of failed or degraded solar panels. Despite that, they only really apply to residential or recreational solar consumers who may be looking to dispose of one or a couple of panels at any given time.

Sale

If you have solar panels that are no longer efficient enough to justify keeping them in your system, you can sell them to hobbyists or folks looking for panels for small or starter projects. In addition, online resources like eBay, Gumtree, and local classifieds can be great places to offload less-than-perfect solar panels.

Re-purposing

This is a desirable option for creative souls and weekend DIY warriors. We can reuse sickly or dead solar panels in small solar projects or turn them into anything from thermal cladding for doghouses, fences, greenhouses, or even furniture.

Storing

StoringThis may not seem to be the ideal way to get rid of old solar panels, but if you only have a couple of offensive members, you can keep them in a safe place for recycling when there are enough of them to warrant the effort.

Dumping

This option may raise some eyebrows, but if you adhere to local e-waste disposal laws, you can dump old solar panels in approved locations. If you don’t want to do it yourself, many scrap merchants will take dead panels off your hands and probably pay you for the convenience.

To Summarize

Recycling is without a doubt the most responsible choice for disposing of solar panels. That is a no-brainer. However, it is often one of the more problematic solutions when considering all the industry realities when we consider all the industry realities. Let’s look at the main solar panel recycling takeaways are from what we have described here.

  • Small-scale private solar operators have to actively seek out recycling agencies and pick-up points to recycle their panels. They do, however, have other realistic and viable alternatives to recycling. Most importantly, if they choose to dump their panels, the onus rests firmly with them to ensure they do so legally.
  • generally, they cover the large-scale commercial operators in advance with long-term EOL (End Of Life) strategies and contractual disposal agreements.
  • Recycling solar panels is an extensive, labor-intensive industrial process with small margins of profit.
  • The laws and policies that underpin the solar waste recycling and disposal industries are, for the most part, in their infancy. They are, however, evolving fast to keep up with the rapid increase in the number of global solar installations reaching maturity and EOL status.

We hope you have found this article useful and would welcome any insights or questions in the comments section below.

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